Legendary punk pioneer Richard Hell came to the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis to talk about his works, including his most recent book: “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp: An Autobiography.” Hell was an integral part of the burgeoning New York punk scene in the 1970s with his bands Television, The Heartbreakers, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Television was one of the first bands to play at CBGB, and the Voidoids “Blank Generation” became and remains a defining song of the era. Credited with being one of the founders of the early punk scene and aesthetic, and with directly influencing bands such as the Sex Pistols, Hell has since given up playing music and continued the writing which initially took him to New York, working as a critic, magazine writer, and novelist.
Hell began by speaking about his visits to Memphis in the past, and how they served as inspiration in some of his writings, noting as one example the downtrodden motels with “no refunds after 10 minutes” signs up in the area near The Lamplighter, a midtown Memphis dive bar. “Memphis was a revelation in seedy motels,” Hell said. He read four short poems that were part of a collaboration with friend and Television bandmate Tom Verlaine, but published under the female pseudonym Theresa Stern in the book “Wanna Go Out?” the title of which is from a phrase that was often thrown about outside bars in New York City and Hoboken, New Jersey, in the 1970s. Hell noted that he and Verlaine wrote differently while collaborating than they did on their own, saying the set of Theresa Stern poems were the “literary equivalent of what the band was.”
Hell pointed out that his newest book was an autobiography, not a memoir, because he was trying to write about his entire life, not just a specific set of memories. He said he decided to try an autobiography after his previous book was finished because coming up with the map for fictional stories is difficult, but that writing about his life was harder than he’d imagined. “When you think about it, the whole universe is your story,” said Hell. “It was actually harder than making up a story.” Addressing reviewers who have read his autobiography and expressed surprise at the level of anger and hate he seems to have for people from his past, Hell said that he doesn’t lose sleep over what happened and that he’s not still angry. “I’m just trying to convey what it was like as I was going through it,” he said.
He read excerpts of his works that described Television’s first gig, CBGB, the women in the early punk scene, and spoke candidly about his drug use and common rumors that surround the history of that time. During the Q&A he answered questions concerning what he’s listening to now, (there’s too much content out there to stay current, but he’s been listening to the Libertines lately); what it was like working with Dee Dee Ramone on the song “Chinese Rocks,” (he owns 25% due to writing half the lyrics); what conditions he thinks spur the kind of creativity and innovation seen in the early punk scene; and what it was like floating down the Mississippi River with Legs McNeil in 1986 for an article in Spin Magazine (you can read that here.)